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New plan needed for Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River; water levels likely to be higher this summer

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CLAYTON — The consensus among those in the room in Clayton for a panel discussion hosted by the International Water Levels Coalition was clear: the plan that regulates the water levels for Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River needs to be updated, immediately.

Thomas E. Brown, a member of the International St. Lawrence River Board of Control, and Gary S. DeYoung, executive director of the 1000 Islands International Tourism Council, addressed a small but deeply invested crowd of listeners in the concession area of the Cerow Recreational Arena during the annual Clayton Spring Boat Show.

The recurring topic? The Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Plan 2014 authored by the International Join Commission.

Mr. Brown and Mr. DeYoung were both critical of the existing plan — 1958D, in place for more than 50 years — and called for a renewed look at the way both Canada and the United States manage the levels of the two bodies of water.

At stake are both environmental and economic issues, the two experts were quick to point out.

Fielding questions from coalition President William H. Schebaum, Mr. DeYoung was the first to speak.

Higher water levels are key to extending the tourism season into autumn, which will allow businesses ranging from fishing charters to tour boats to retail outlets to continue to operate and provide a more robust economic base for an area that has long been dependent on seasonal consumers.

“Fall is what we found out is the best opportunity for increasing business,” Mr. DeYoung said. “If we do that, we can support a lot of different kinds of businesses.”

He then painted a practical picture of the wider effects low water levels can have on the business communities along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

“When the water levels drop, people stop buying tablecloths,” he said, emphasizing the harm done to Main Street businesses when river tourism slows down.

“This is a terribly important topic,” Mr. Brown said. “The more we can learn about it, the more we can talk about it.”

One of the reasons the 1958D plan is no longer suitable is the fact that it was developed in an entirely different era with an emphasis on an entirely different set of industries, according to Mr. Brown.

The beneficiaries of the current plan were power, navigation and shoreline entities, and the plan has “been around for 50 years without any change and without any regard for recreational boating or the environment,” Mr. Brown said.

According to Mr. Brown, in the 1950s, people knew very little about the environment, and the 1958D plan has devastated the ecology and environment of the entire system, in some places leaving 80 percent of the wetland lost.

“As wetland viability goes, so goes the viability of the entire ecosystem,” Mr. Brown said.

Part of the problem, he said, is that a natural 6- to 8-foot range of high and low water levels has been compressed to a 4-foot range, which necessitates major annual control of the Lake Ontario ecosystem and leads to lower water levels in the fall and winter.

That control has taken a heavy toll on biodiversity, especially the muskrat and Northern pike populations, Mr. Brown said.

The 2014 plan, which is being finalized by the IJC, will begin to improve variability and move the regulation of water levels to a more natural process; it also would provide higher water levels in the fall, Mr. Brown said.

Though the plan ultimately will have to be approved by the governments of the U.S. and Canada, New York state also is supposed to have significant input, according to Mr. Schebaum.

The problem is that state officials, particularly Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, have been slow to weigh in on the plan, Mr. Schebaum said.

Stephen M. Hunt II, a representative for Rep. William L. Owens, attended the meeting, as did Canadian Sen. Robert W. Runciman, who told attendees that he had recently spoken with IJC Commissioner and acting Canadian Chairman Gordon Walker.

“We’ve got a friend in Mr. Walker,” Sen. Runciman said. “He told me we would be very happy.”

Asked his forecast for this summer’s water levels, Mr. Brown said the harsh winter provided a 93 percent ice cover, which saves a lot of water, and the area likely would see higher water levels this summer.

The levels now are 7 inches lower than normal but rising, Mr. Brown said.

Lake Ontario was at 244.69 feet as of Friday, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website.

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